The first 100 days is a traditional, though somewhat arbitrary, point at which pundits assess the performance of a new president or prime minister. As someone pointed out, if we had six fingers on each hand, we would pontificate about the first 144 days a leader had been in office. But when that leader is Donald Trump, it seems that we live in a world where everything is subjective in any case.
In his own country, judgements are likely to dwell on the collapse of his attempt to ‘repeal and replace’ Obama care, provoking his child-like complaint, ‘Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.’ (Actually, almost everyone did.) It is true that the economic impact of his domestic decisions on matters such as tax cuts will be felt abroad, but what matters most internationally, not least in Asia, is Trump’s foreign policy.
The question is whether the president’s words and actions can be dignified with the name of a policy, so far do the two diverge. Consider what we thought we knew when Trump took office. Even then there were contradictions – he talked of obliterating Islamic State, but also of avoiding foreign entanglements – but the message of his inauguration was that America would put its own interests first, retreating into narrow nationalism. Nato was ‘obsolete’, Russia was a friend, and China had to stop depressing its currency or face a tariff war.
Since then, every one of those positions has been reversed, with the exception of the promise to eradicate Islamist extremism, without explaining how it is to be done. In all other respects, the president’s opinions appear malleable. It took a shared slice of chocolate cake with ‘my good friend’ President Xi Jinping (see Month in Brief) for Trump to decide that China was not manipulating its currency after all. During the same meeting, he casually informed his counterpart that he had launched 59 cruise missiles against Syria, after the use of chemical weapons by Damascus. Trump opposed such action in exactly the same circumstances when his predecessor, Barack Obama, proposed it, but was apparently swayed by seeing the chemical attack victims on TV.
Even some of the president’s critics applauded his decisive action, and Trump’s new-found appetite for intervention manifested itself again some days later, when the largest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed was dropped on Islamic State tunnels in Afghanistan. Those seeking to discern a strategy suggested that both actions were aimed in part at putting pressure on North Korea to curb its nuclear weapons programme, and for China to rein in its client. Trump’s announcement that he was sending ‘an armada’ towards North Korea appeared to confirm that impression, only for the kind of farcical misunderstanding that characterises this administration to erupt.
With the world preparing for a possible nuclear confrontation, it emerged that the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its escorts were heading in the opposite direction, towards Australia. The reaction in South Korea was furious. By the time the carrier group neared the Korean peninsula, it had become clearer that for all his tough talk, Trump was pursuing much the same policy of diplomacy and sanctions towards Pyongyang as previous presidents.
The same evolution appears to have taken place in his approach to Nato and Russia. Dogged by suspicion over his relationship with the Kremlin, the president has ceased his praise for Vladimir Putin. The missile strike on Syria, Russia’s ally, also served to distance him from Moscow. Nato, meanwhile, has formally been declared essential, no longer obsolete.
Where does all this leave us? Relieved, certainly, that Trump is discovering some of the realities of office. One optimistic reading is that in the course of his very public education process, his supporters might also learn that running the country is not as easy as he made it sound. But the lesson for the rest of the world is that he is an uncertain and capricious ally, prone to proceeding on instinct and impulse. And, like previous occupants of the White House, he is finding that he has a much freer hand abroad than at home.